WASHINGTON – District of Columbia public high school student Milagro Argueta told the audience that if she and her Spanish-speaking friends are lucky enough to eat lunch at their school in peace, it’s a good day.
They have the money, she said through an interpreter, but they don’t speak enough English to easily order lunch. So, they can only point to what they want to eat, and frustrated, sometimes insensitive cafeteria personnel lash out at the students, she said.
Another public school student complained that the teachers at her schools were so bad that she and her parents had to seek other optional educational opportunities. Another told the adults black boys need mentors, not more police, and another said poor kids need the schools to help them out of poverty.
The four were among the 66 D.C. Public Schools’ students who testified at the Issues Facing District of Columbia Youth hearing last week at City Hall about problems and changes they said need to be made in the school system.
They shared with Washington City Council member David Grosso, chair of the Committee on Education, and other Education Committee members and school officials the good and bad they have encountered as students in the District.
Dozens of parents, teachers and mentors also attended the hearing to provide support for students.
Argueta and the teens who attend Columbia Heights High School asked Grosso to quickly pass the Language Access for Education Amendment of 2015 bill, which will require schools with more than 10 percent of students enrolled in the English as a second language program to train their staff on how to better handle language barriers with the help of interpreters.
Destine Whittington, a senior at Richard Wright Public Charter School and a student member of the D.C. State Board of Education, said she feels there is a lack of teacher quality, credibility and accountability that she has seen as a lifelong student in DCPS. She said she hopes switching to a charter school will help.
“In the classroom, you have teachers who do not truly understand what they are teaching, do not care to go in depth about what they are teaching, as well as those that do not provide proper academic support,” Whittington said.
Consequently, she said, she felt she was not smart because she did not learn how to multiply properly until she was a 6th grader.
“I thought I was the problem,” she said, “but as I got older, I realized that it was not my fault, but that my teachers who didn’t teach me properly. Richard Wright has changed that for me, and now I have outstanding experiences.”
Nate Green, 17, a junior at KIPP DC College Prep, also serves on the same committee as Whittington, discussed his concerns about police and their relationship with black students.
Green said that instead of locking up troubled youth, a better solution would be to provide them with mentorship with the police officers
“The biggest talk around town is police brutality,” he said. “My peers and I don’t understand why more police [on the street] is needed.”
“Sometimes these kids just get off track and they told me, ‘We just want someone to talk to us.’ I come here ask you to create a mentorship program between MPD and students in the high school system,” said Green.
Dershika Robertson, Quinell Hargrove, and Richard Johnson, who attend Dunbar High School, said they feel that the system as a whole needs to do a better job in helping students who come from lower income backgrounds.
Johnson, who was born and raised in Ward 8, said he did not attend Anacostia High School near his home because he and his parents agreed the school would give him an adequate education needed to get him to college and beyond.
“I’ve seen what poverty can do to people,” Johnson said. “The one thing that is lacking is belief and accountability.
“Many schools that are not named Duke Ellington, School Without Walls, or Wilson lack basic resources those schools are afforded. For the longest, we didn’t even have a set of dictionaries at our school. It is a basic book.”
Although the panel was meant for students to express grievances, some students brought stories of triumph.
Tremayne Chatman, a graduate of Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus, said he was encouraged to be successful during his years at Cardozo. Chatman said he had an opportunity to go abroad to Jamaica with his school to build schools for low income students.
“Not every student wants to go to college, but we all have dreams and goals,” Chatman said.
HUNS reporter Alyssa Smith contributed to this story.